Improv Everywhere’s YouTube embrace pays off


When thousands of pantless New Yorkers descend into the subway system every January, you have one man to thank: Charlie Todd.

Todd, 36, is the force beyond Improv Everywhere, a 14-year-old comedy collective that has gone from Todd’s passion project to a full-time media operation, thanks to its early embrace of YouTube. What were once funny pranks that raised eyebrows have become fodder for the growing video publisher, which has 173 YouTube videos sporting 379 million total views over the past nine years.

“Pretty quickly, I realized I should be recording these moments, because Improv Everywhere stages these ephemeral projects in public spaces that disappear,” said Todd, who employs production company Deverge to shoot and edit his videos. “If you don’t document them, they’re gone forever.”

Improv Everywhere orchestrates playful public stunts, from recreating a “Matrix” action scene inside a Macy’s to bringing black tie attire to the beach. Todd has used YouTube to grow from an unpaid comedy project to a media operation with a healthy advertising and branded-content business. The group’s YouTube channel has become the home for the group’s scenes of organized chaos.

Starting in April 2006, Improv Everywhere quickly found success on YouTube, churning out viral hits and becoming an early partner channel, which enabled Todd to monetize his scenes for the first time. Improv Everywhere videos were regularly featured on the YouTube homepage. Today, even with a massive following of more than 1.7 million subscribers, it’s not as easy to break through on the platform, given YouTube’s algorithmic curation and glut of competing creators.

“We are putting out content on a monthly basis, so when we have a new piece of content, we have to make sure it’s something that is going to be covered [in the media] outside of YouTube,” said Todd. “The platform seems to reward those who upload on a schedule and upload regularly, which we have done in the past and aim to do now.”

The Improv Everywhere channel attracts roughly 1.8 million monthly video views, according to YouTube analytics platform OpenSlate. That viewership, plus Improv Everywhere’s off-YouTube influence, has proven attractive to brands. In late 2013, Todd signed with multichannel network Collective Digital Studio, which acts as a sales team for the YouTube channel.

“I don’t want to employ a sales team,” said Todd. “It’s nice to have someone else pursuing opportunities on your behalf.”

In the past few months, Todd staged a pirate invasion of the Central Park lake with help from Disney Parks and brought a full brass orchestra Christmas caroling, funded by Target. The caroling video was minimally branded, though Target was thrilled with its reception, according to a company spokesperson. The video has more than 1.3 million views on YouTube and was covered by dozens of press outlets, including USA Today, Huffington Post and People. Todd also created a behind-the-scenes video for Target, which he didn’t post to his own channel but handed to Target to post on its YouTube channel and social properties.

“Viewers appreciate great content. And if they see Target as the enabler for that content, that subtle association goes a long way,” said Scott Weller, chief revenue officer at Collective Digital Studio. “There was a lot of association for Target on this video without over-the-top branding.”

For all his content, branded and otherwise, Todd has no plans to expand his distribution strategy beyond YouTube, though he’s keeping an eye on Vessel and other video platforms.

“I am a little hesitant to put my content behind a [subscription] paywall or even window my content, where if we do something that breaks through, it can turn into a newsworthy piece of content that gets shared everywhere,” said Todd. “And I feel like we would be shooting ourselves in the foot if it was behind a paywall.”

Main image courtesy of Timothy A. Clary / AFP / Getty Images

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